People in the main street of Sausalito, California, via bluestork /

11 Best Small Towns In Northern California

Northern California is renowned for its beautiful towns that offer memorable adventures for travelers, distinct from the more urban areas in the region. Many of these towns are part of the Wine Country, known for their unique wine culture, historic architecture and landmarks, and authentic restaurants featuring fresh seafood and local farm produce.

The weather in Northern California typically includes mild winters and hot, dry summers. In the Bay Area, public transportation is readily available, with the Bay Area Rapid Transit and numerous bus routes serving the region. The famous Highway 1 provides breathtaking views of the Pacific coastline.

From Sonora’s rich history in the California Gold Rush to the luxurious accommodations in Ferndale, Northern California boasts some of the best small towns for a relaxing and fun-filled getaway.


Red Church on Washington Street in historic downtown of Sonora, California.
Red Church on Washington Street in historic downtown of Sonora, California. Editorial credit: StephanieFarrell /

Sonora, with a population of about 5,000, is situated along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Known for its significant role during the California Gold Rush, the best places to learn about Sonora’s history include the Tuolumne County Museum and History Research Center and the McDonald House. Local parks like Coffill Park and Woods Creek Rotary Park offer vast green landscapes and trails for activities like birdwatching, trekking, mountain biking, and camping.

Travelers to Sonora can find a variety of accommodations, such as the modern Hotel Lumberjack, which features wood and rustic accents, local illustrations, and amenities like a coffee maker, a small fridge, and a microwave in each room, along with complimentary breakfast. Adjacent to it is The Sonora Inn, offering a swimming pool, ideal for the warmer seasons.


Calistoga, California: Buildings on the streets of Historic Calistoga is a popular tourist stop at the north end of Napa Valley wine country
Calistoga, California: Buildings on the streets of Historic Calistoga is a popular tourist stop at the north end of Napa Valley wine country, via Dragan Jovanovic /

Nestled at the top of Napa Valley, Calistoga is a charming town known for The Petrified Forest and the renowned CAMI Art and Wine Gallery, which combines wine tasting with an art exhibit. This gallery showcases Sauvignon Blanc and Red Blend wines. Adventure seekers can enjoy hiking, biking, and picnicking at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. The Sharpsteen Museum is the go-to place for those interested in the history of Calistoga and Upper Napa.

Calistoga Spa Hot Springs offers accommodation with four mineral water pools and a volcanic mud ash bath treatment. The hotel includes a fitness center, yoga classes, and rooms equipped with kitchenettes, refrigerators, LED TVs, and comfortable beds.


Priest Ranch Winery tasting room in the heart of Yountville, Napa Valley
Priest Ranch Winery tasting room in the heart of Yountville, Napa Valley, via Leonard Zhukovsky /

Yountville, another gem in Napa Valley, is renowned for its upscale atmosphere and attractions like Napa Valley Aloft hot air balloon rides, offering spectacular aerial views of the valley. The town's Art Walk features outdoor sculptures by local and international artists, with pieces available for purchase. Art and history enthusiasts can also explore the nearby Napa Valley Museum and the Art Association Napa Valley. A notable historic site in Yountville is the V Marketplace, housing art galleries, vintage boutiques, and V Wine Cellars.

Bardessono, a luxury spa resort located in the heart of Napa Valley, is one of Yountville's premier hotels. It features eclectic gardens, a rooftop pool, the B Spa, and rooms with sophisticated amenities.

Sutter Creek

Main Street in Sutter Creek, California.
Main Street in Sutter Creek, California. Editorial credit: Michael Vi /

Located in Amador County's Wine Country, Sutter Creek is renowned for its Victorian buildings along Main Street. A popular attraction is Miners’ Bend Park, where visitors can see a special collection of gold mining tools. The Gold Mine Trail, spanning 15 miles with 18 stops, offers glimpses into the town’s mining heritage. About 20 minutes away, the Black Chasm Cavern, an underground marvel with sparkling crystal helictites, awaits exploration.

In line with its location in Wine Country, Sutter Creek boasts notable wine-tasting spots such as Scott Harvey Wines Tasting Room and Bella Grace Vineyards. For accommodation, Hotel Sutter is one of the options available for a pleasant stay.


Beautiful Russian River flowing in Guerneville, Sonoma County, California.
Beautiful Russian River flowing in Guerneville, Sonoma County, California.

Guerneville, nestled among the towering redwoods of the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, is known for the Guerneville Bank Club, a historic bank transformed into a community hub that reflects the town's dedication to preserving its architectural heritage. The Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve is a must-visit, offering a tranquil setting amidst ancient redwoods. The Armstrong Nature Trail and other paths provide immersive experiences in this forest. An adventurous 18-minute drive leads to Sonoma Coast State Park, which boasts stunning coastal views, sandy beaches like Wright’s Beach, Russian Gulch, and Carmet Beach, and hiking opportunities such as the Bodega Dunes Trail System. For unique lodging, The Stavrand Hotel offers a stay amidst the serene redwood forests.


Colorful homes in Capitola.
Colorful homes in Capitola.

Capitola is a vibrant town with colorful houses by the beach, situated at the northern end of Monterey Bay. This seafront village is known for its laidback lifestyle, warm surfing community, and quaint downtown area. Capitola Beach, with its picturesque sandy stretch against a backdrop of colorful seaside homes and a bustling esplanade, is a highlight. The Venetian Hotel, an iconic structure overlooking the beach, adds Mediterranean charm to the scenery. The Capitola Historical Museum offers a fun indoor activity to learn about the town’s social and cultural history. Lumen Gallery, showcasing local art and handcrafted accessories by local artists, is another attraction. The Inn at Depot Hill, a bed and breakfast in a historic building, is known for its charm and excellent service, featuring individually decorated rooms, fireplaces, and spa tubs in some rooms.


Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys, California
Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys, California. Image credit EWY Media via ShutterstockCaption:

Murphys, a mountainous town in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, is an ideal destination for outdoor adventurers. Located in the region between Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe, it boasts a vibrant village with art galleries and fine-dining restaurants. Ironstone Vineyards is a notable attraction, renowned for its gardens, wine caves, outdoor theater, and wine tastings. Calaveras Big Trees State Park, home to giant Sequoias and featuring the historic Discovery Tree, discovered by Augustus T. Dowd in 1852, is a must-visit. The town's historic charm is further accentuated by the Masonic Hall. Lastly, the Little Yellow Cottage offers quaint vacation accommodation with a front porch, fire pit area, and private back garden.


Street view in Sausalito, California
Street view in Sausalito, California, via f11photo /

Sausalito is a picturesque waterfront city in Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, known for its stunning skyline views, Mediterranean-style architecture, and vibrant arts community. Historical landmarks in the town include the Old Marinship area, significant for its role in World War II shipbuilding. The Bay Area Discovery Museum, situated on a former Army post, provides interactive exhibits for children.

Nature enthusiasts can explore nearby natural areas like the Marin Headlands or Mount Tamalpais State Park, offering hiking trails amid beautiful surroundings. The Casa Madrona Hotel and Spa is a notable accommodation in Sausalito, known for its blend of historic elegance and modern luxury.


The main street of Ferndale, California.
The main street of Ferndale, California. Editorial credit: Bob Pool /

Ferndale, distinguished by its storybook aesthetics, is conveniently located near major highways. Famous for its well-preserved 19th-century architecture, the town's Main Street is adorned with ornate storefronts and colorful Victorian homes, earning it the nickname "Cream City" due to its dairy production history. The Ferndale Museum offers insights into the town's agricultural and logging past with its artifacts and exhibits.

The Victorian village of Ferndale, including the Gingerbread Mansion Inn, showcases the town's architectural heritage. While Firemen's Pavilion and Firemen's Park are more local spots, visitors can enjoy the historic Centerville Beach. The Lost Coast Scenic Drive and nearby Humboldt Redwoods State Park, known for its ancient redwood groves, provide breathtaking natural landscapes. For lodging, Francis Creek Inn offers comfortable accommodations with modern amenities.


The Amtrak station in Dunsmuir, California
The Amtrak station in Dunsmuir, California

Dunsmuir is renowned for its stunning natural surroundings, including the Sacramento River and the nearby Mount Shasta. The Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens provide a peaceful retreat with themed gardens, native plants, and views of the Sacramento River. Hedge Creek Falls, known for its natural beauty, is a popular attraction in the area. The Dunsmuir Historical Museum, located in the old Amtrak Depot, showcases the town's rich railroad history through various artifacts, photographs, and exhibits. A popular accommodation in Dunsmuir is the Railroad Park Resort, offering unique caboose rooms and cabins with amenities like an on-site restaurant, a swimming pool, and scenic views along the Sacramento River.


The small coastal town of Mendocino, California, is a popular getaway for Bay Area residents.
The small coastal town of Mendocino, California, is a popular getaway for Bay Area residents.

Mendocino, along Northern California’s rugged coastline, is a charming coastal village known for its breathtaking scenery and artistic spirit. The Mendocino Headlands State Park offers stunning ocean views with its sea-carved bluffs and coastal trails. The Kelley House Museum, a preserved Victorian house museum, showcases Mendocino's cultural and social history with artifacts, photographs, and documents. The 1866 Mendocino Masonic Hall is a historic building reflecting the architectural style of the era, and Temple Kwan Tai, dedicated to the Chinese god of war and prosperity, is one of the oldest Chinese temples in California. The Mendocino Hotel and Garden Suites, located in the heart of Mendocino Village, offers Victorian charm with individually decorated rooms, fireplaces, and garden views.

The Takeaway

These small towns in Northern California, from the coastal charm of Mendocino to the historic allure of Dunsmuir, offer diverse landmarks and attractions. Each town provides unique and memorable experiences, showcasing the region's natural beauty, cultural richness, and small-town hospitality. Northern California's hidden gems, like Murphys and Guerneville, balance historical significance with modern vitality, inviting visitors to experience the authentic essence of the region and leave with lasting memories.

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